Lately, Mitt Romney is losing his reputation in the media as a politician who constantly flip-flops from one policy position to another—and gaining one as a politician who won’t take a position at all.
The shift has been sparked by the recent return to the news cycle of immigration, a delicate subject for the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Faced with opportunities to address President Obama’s DREAM Act-lite directive or the Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s tough immigration law, Romney has often punted—and the media has been quick to notice. Romney’s refusal, under repeated questioning from Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer, to say whether he’d repeal Obama’s directive was widely flagged. His speech to Latino lawmakers in Florida was chided for lacking specifics by outlets from The Atlantic to the Chicago Tribune (with the latter report showing up in swing-state newspapers like The Columbus Dispatch). And his press aide’s stonewalling about the merits of the court ruling, and of the underlying Arizona law, seems to have annoyed campaign reporters, based on this Politico item. (Romney’s own subsequent statement wasn’t too much more forthcoming.) By the end of the day Monday, the “media scrutiny” had itself become a story.
And it’s not only immigration. As Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns wrote over the weekend, under the headline “Mitt Romney’s no-policy problem”:
Vague, general or downright evasive policy prescriptions on some of the most important issues facing the country are becoming the rule for Romney. Hoping to make the campaign strictly a referendum on the incumbent, the hyper-cautious challenger is open about his determination to not give any fodder to Obama aides hungry to make the race as much about Romney as the president.
Romney is remarkably candid, almost as though he’s reading the stage directions, about why he won’t offer up details: he thinks it will undermine his chances to win.
“The media kept saying to Chris, ‘Come on, give us the details, give us the details,’’’ Romney has said about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial race. “‘We want to hang you with them.’”
In addition to immigration, Martin and Burns cite Romney’s evasiveness on Wall Street regulations, foreign policy, and tax and budget issues. To my eye, some of these counts are not particularly damning—it doesn’t seem unusual, or especially unreasonable, that Romney is at this point sticking with banalities about Afghanistan and Iran. On the other hand, his vagueness on the budget—promising to close the deficit but offering only ticky-tack cuts to Amtrak and foreign aid; indicating he favors eliminating tax deductions but refusing to say which ones—is ripe to be called out. Overall, Martin and Burns assemble a credible case for their claim that, “as he enters the heat of this year’s campaign, Romney is testing just how far he can go in not telling voters what policies he’d pursue in the White House.” At Slate, meanwhile, John Dickerson chimes in to note how much more detail George W. Bush had offered by this point in his 2000 campaign.
If this is to become the new media narrative about Romney, it’s a step up from both the search for “the real Romney” and the “flip-flopper” meme, each of which Brendan Nyhan has critiqued for CJR. A basic function of campaign coverage, after all—before exposing influence, digging into the record, scrutinizing policy proposals and all that important stuff—is simply explaining to people what candidates say they want to do. If a candidate won’t say what he wants to do—or what say with enough specificity to make even cursory scrutiny possible—that’s an important story.
That said, here are three things reporters should keep in mind as they press Romney for more details and seek to inform voters about his plans:
Don’t read too much into “hot-mic” moments. Romney’s studied vagueness gives some extra juice to stories like this April account by NBC’s Garrett Haake, based on overhearing the candidate’s remarks to a closed-door fundraiser. And indeed, that article contains substantive policy details that Romney doesn’t typically discuss, like specific tax deductions and cabinet agencies that might be on the chopping block in a Romney presidency (assuming, as always, that Congress is amenable).
Inadvertent disclosures like this one are often treated as a window onto what a politician really thinks—or in this case, what a politician will do. But the very fact that these comments weren’t intended to be public might be reason to discount them. One of the reasons that campaign promises are a reliable guide to politicians’ future actions is that supporters can use those commitments to hold politicians accountable. The proposed changes Romney discussed in that talk are interesting—but his unwillingness to discuss them publicly might tell us more about how committed he is to seeing them through.